Democrats Turn to Women to Challenge Tennessee GOP

tennessean-news-graphicJoey Garrison and Dave Boucher. The Tennessean. April 4, 2016.

One candidate is a home-school mother of eight from Fayette County. There’s a former military officer, a Navy veteran and the head of a Nashville education nonprofit. They range from as young as 28 to as old as 77.

In a push to bring more women into Tennessee politics, a record of at least 23 women from across the state are running as Democrats to challenge Republican-held state legislative seats in November — and they plan to make the passage of Insure Tennessee their battle cry.

It follows a quiet but steady recruitment effort by a network of Tennessee Democrats, party activists and self-described parent-teacher mothers, or “PTO moms,” to find women — on social media, by reading letters to editors or talking to county party chairmen — willing to run for a seat in the male-dominated Tennessee legislature.

Most, but not all, of the women are running for public office for the first time.

Efforts are strategic: Beleaguered Tennessee Democrats, who have suffered massive election losses for two decades in the state legislature, have struggled to field candidates in many rural districts and against longtime Republican incumbents. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the legislature 101 to 31. By fielding women, Democrats hope to capitalize from the perceived unpopularity among women of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

And it also represents a goal in general to boost political activity among women, who across both parties represent just 22 of the 132 seats in the Tennessee General Assembly. During the 2014 election cycle, only five non-incumbent Democratic women ran for state legislative office in Tennessee. The plan is to address a “pipeline problem” by creating a new bench of female Democratic candidates over the long term, even if they don’t win their races.

“I think there’s nothing more powerful than a group of women to come together to make a change,” said Courtenay Rogers, a single mother from Williamson County who is mounting a challenge to Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin. “In the year 2016, you wouldn’t think we would have to be pushing this hard to get women elected, but we are.”

Organizing the slate

The group of 23 Democratic women plans to hold a news conference Tuesday morning to formally announce their bids. Most of them met in Nashville on Sunday for a crash course on how to campaign — from learning how to talk to the media to handling campaign finances.

Helping lead the effort to find  female candidates are activists from Women for Tennessee’s Future, a Nashville-based political action committee that backs progressive candidates. Also steering the ship is Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville. The Tennessee Democratic Party had a role as well, organizers say.

Challengers include Sydney Rogers, outgoing executive director of the education nonprofit Alignment Nashville, who is taking on Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. Communications professional Holly McCall is seeking the seat held by embattled Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin; and Erin Coleman, an engineer and military veteran, is challenging state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville.

Elsewhere, Gayla Hendrix, an attorney from DeKalb County, is running against Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster. Amelia Hipps, a former editor of a community newspaper, is matched against Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon. And Trisha Farmer, a health care activist who works in marketing, is challenging Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet.

Also running again is Gloria Johnson, a former Democratic House member from Knoxville who in 2014 lost to Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville.

Democrats had decades to try and incorporate more women and didn’t, argued Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes.

“Once again, Democrats are out to divide,” Haynes said in a statement. “Looking for qualified candidates of any gender is always commendable but their efforts here would be a lot more credible if they had, for example, actually had a woman serve as Speaker of the House in Tennessee during their 150-year hold on the state. They didn’t. Instead it took Republicans to put forth a strong leader like Beth Harwell to do that — and it was the first thing we did when we took full control of the House.”

Pushing Insure Tennessee

Atop the list of issues for the candidates is the state legislature’s refusal to pass Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s version of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

“The reason I decided to run is in my district, there hasn’t been a Democrat on the ballot in several cycles,” said Civil Miller-Watkins, a home-school mother from Rossville who is running for the West Tennessee seat held by Republican Rep. Jamie Jenkins. “And the whole Insure Tennessee thing — it just really frustrates me. As a mom of eight, I’ve been on TennCare and done the WIC thing, and been in that area where you make too much for this, but you don’t make enough to do that.”

Facing opposition to the plan within his own party, Haslam has not introduced Insure Tennessee legislation this year. It died twice in Senate committee last year and received no vote in the House.

Over the past year, the issue has emerged as the go-to topic for the Tennessee Democratic Party as it seeks to regain traction. Organizers of the women’s effort say they set out to target Republicans who have opposed Insure Tennessee and find potential Democratic women who back the program.

They searched on Facebook and Twitter for women who have been vocal on the issue and relied heavily on “letters to the editor” of local newspapers.

“If you were a woman, and you wrote a letter to the editor about Insure Tennessee, you got a phone call,” Quigley said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 percent of state legislative seats nationwide are held by women. The highest state is Colorado at 42 percent. The lowest is Louisiana at 12 percent. In Tennessee, women hold 17 percent of legislative seats.

Similar efforts to recruit Democratic women to run for office are underway in 16 states and are part of the Emerge America network, a program that seeks to identify, train and encourage women to run for office.

“There’s a groundswell of momentum toward electing more women leaders,” said Marcy Stech, communications director for Emily’s List, a national organization focused on electing liberal women.

“There is an exciting opportunity that we have right now to see more women in power, and that changes the dynamics for generations to come.”

Raising quality of candidates

From a political standpoint, anything Tennessee Democrats do to raise the quality of their competition for statehouse seats will help them, according to John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

“Women candidates are a particularly good vehicle to undertake this effort, since they offer a sharp contrast to incumbents like Jeremy Durham,” said Geer, referencing the embattled Franklin Republican accused of sending inappropriate late-night text messages to three women. “We know Insure Tennessee has broad popular support, and female candidates should be in a strong position to tap into this sentiment.”

He also said that the timing is right for the push given the rise of Trump, who numerous polls show has low favorability ratings among women.

“A Trump nomination by the GOP for president could turn off many voters, especially women, in the 2016 election and that impact could affect down ballot races,” Geer said. “Combine that with questionable actions of some legislators, you have the potential to forge change.”

Gabby Salinas, president of the Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, whose mission is to bring more women into the political process regardless of party affiliation, said women are often more hesitant to enter elections, but “when they go after these positions, they do remarkably well.”

As candidates, she said, women often face questions about tone and fashion that men don’t, pointing to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and past presidential candidate Carly Fiorina as examples.

Locally, she said many women have been encouraged to run for office by Megan Barry’s victory in last year’s Nashville mayoral race.

She also said they’re just fed up with the status quo.

“I think women have seen that the candidates do not care about their issues, and are willing to step out and say we need more women at the table,” Salinas said. “When women are at the table, the conversation changes.”

Uphill battle

The majority of the candidates are running in districts that lean heavily Republican. They will be underdogs, some decidedly so.

Many Republican incumbents haven’t had any opposition in recent elections, either in their party primary or in the general election against Democrats.

“They’re untested and they’ve had a free pass,” said Krissa Barclay, a longtime Democratic operative in Tennessee who helped recruit the Democratic challengers. “And it’s important to have someone else at the table if you’re even going to have a conversation.

“Our women are not politicians,” she said. “They have jobs. They’re PTO leaders. There’s a couple of veterans. These are people who through our own networks that we found — and this is sort of the year of the outsider movement.”

But in Tennessee, where Republicans have increasingly dominated, GOP women have had a better track record getting elected than their Democratic counterparts. Harwell was the state’s  first female speaker, while the state’s only two female congresswomen, Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black, are Republicans. All three are considered potential candidates for statewide office in 2018.

And despite the new push by Democrats, Republican women actually outnumber Democrats in the state legislature by a 13-to-9 margin.

Leaders of Women for Tennessee’s Future, which made its entry in 2013 by getting behind Barry’s mayoral run, say they plan to play an active role raising money for the state candidates. And yet they also say just getting 25 women to run is a success even if none of them ultimately win. Success for Democratic women in Tennessee has been winning mayor’s offices — Kim McMillan in Clarksville, Madeline Rogero in Knoxville and Barry in Nashville.

“It’s difficult to make predictions or goals at this point,” said Bonnie Dow, treasurer of Women for Tennessee’s Future. “Even if it is the case, for instance, that we don’t pick up any seats, it is not an effort wasted in any sense. Because what it does is it changes the conversation. It demonstrates that women are willing to make the effort to run. It inspires other people. Those women might run again at some point. There’s all kinds of enormous benefits from doing this.”

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison. Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.